Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Two and a Half Ceases to Compute



I watched through the ninth season of Two and a Half Men, which starts by uncle Charlie being replaced by IT billionaire Walden. It's not working. The money keeps it running, but surely not for long.

Chuck Lorre is a brilliant TV sitcom creator, but saving this series after Charlie Sheen's departure from it is more than he manages. Oddly, it's because he forgets his Aristotle.

The Greek philosopher's text on drama, The Poetics, lays down the laws of how to make any dramatic plot function. Aristotle extracted the principles from the works of the formidable playwrights of the century preceding his. They still work. More than that – they are still laws in the way that if you break them, you fail.

When Charlie Sheen was still on the show, the two and a half were the brothers Charlie and Alan (played by Jon Cryer), two very different but equally fragile characters, and the boy Jake (Angus T. Jones), who seemed to have little less to hope for than their essentially miserable lives.

Alan was a parasite, but also at times the necessary support for his playboy brother Charlie, who was morally impaired, to say the least, but still suffered his parasite brother and the weak-minded boy, like you do in a family. Jake had to adapt to quite a rough adult world, although only a boy, but on the other hand he was neither an Einstein nor an angel to begin with. To sum it up, some kind of justice for all involved.

But Walden (played by Ashton Kutcher) is just a nice, naive guy, who happens also to be a billionaire. He is increasingly taken advantage of, as the ninth season progresses, by two persons who have no right at all to demand his loyalty. That makes him boringly submissive and both Alan and Jake cynical. One good guy and two bad guys. What's to enjoy in that?

Through the episodes of this season, the writers have also made the mistake of making Alan a more and more dominant lead, as if the whole series is really only about him. As if two and a half has become one. But he behaves so badly, abusing Walden's hospitality beyond what's at all reasonable, even stealing money from his teenage son, there's no way the viewer can keep any sympathy for him.

So, they made the bad guy the hero. That just doesn't work. Aristotle made it very clear: You can have the good guy suffer, even die at the end. You can have the bad guy getting away with it. But you can't have the good guy suffer and the bad guy being rewarded. Any audience will turn away in disgust.

Jake could hold the key to it all, but this character is on a downward slope that seems impossible to turn around. Being the very archetype of a hopeless teenager instead of a kid with rosy cheeks, he doesn't attract much sympathy either. No wonder they end the season by sending him off to the army.

When Walden entered the series, he was presented with a flawed personality indeed, but no evil streak. So what would he do in that house, and for that matter in this sitcom series? As the season progressed, his flaws faded away, until we have what can be described as an eccentric, but no fool at all. They even cut his hair and shaved off his beard. That gives no explanation to why he stays around.

Aristotle stated firmly that the best is if the characters do what they do because they have to, out of necessity. Walden has no “has to.” Alan does, Jake does, and so does everyone else in the series, more or less. Only Walden lacks the two components that would render him believable and exciting in this series: a need to be where he is and an evil streak.

What should they have done, once Charlie Sheen was excluded from the series? Well, the best thing would be to cancel the whole thing. A sitcom has a limited lifespan to begin with. But there was money to suck out of it for everybody involved, so it goes on until its presence is embarrassing and its cancellation will be a coup de grâce.

To make that death row prolonged as well as less tormenting, they should have taken proper care about the new guy Walden, making him fit. As mentioned above, two things: a necessity to be there and an evil streak.

For the former, they could for example make him the real father of Jake (provided he had the age for it). That would be a joke played on Alan, and we would suffer his misbehavior easier. We would pity him. It would also make Jake's continued growing into an obnoxious adolescent more interesting. We would be curious about how much of his behavior would be Alan's, and how much from his real father Walden.

That would work. Secret blood relations are classical ingredients all through drama history.

Also, it would give Walden some of that necessary evil streak, since he is continuously unwilling to take the full responsibility of his past action – and hiding it, too. It would also be the clue to what the core of his evil streak should be: irresponsibility and the unwillingness to admit it.

Of course, there are so many other ways in which the series could comply to the Aristotelean rules for drama, and succeed for a while longer. As it seems now, though, the team behind it has all but given up completely. Their hearts are not in it, because it changed into something other than the baby they initially delivered. It's like a stranger to them, an orphan, and they have no love for it.

Another classical theme in drama history.

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